Pandemic & Food Systems

Want to learn more about pandemics and the food system?

The political, economic and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the food system will be explored in a new course at George Mason University this fall, “Special Topics: 2020 Pandemic & Food Studies”, taught by Dr. Kelly A. Spring in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. In the course, students will consider the historical events that shape the modern food system, explore the alterations wrought by the pandemic on it, and debate how the food system will look in the future, post-pandemic world. 

The food system will never be the same. The 2020 pandemic of COVID-19 has rendered changes to every aspect of how we produce, process, distribute, and consume food from field and factory to our dinner plate. But the precipitous alterations brought about by the health crisis did not happen in a vacuum; rather the effects from the pandemic are built on the power structure, social injustices, and inequalities inherent in the formation of the modern food system. The pandemic represents another chapter in the evolution of this system, rather than a rupture and complete break from contemporary structures.

In the Second World War, United States’ agriculture pulled out of its slump and experienced a booming resurgence. American farms were called on to supply not only the home front, but also to feed its Allies through the Lend-Lease Program, making it the largest agricultural complex in the world. However, the conscription of men into the services drew valuable workers from the farms. To fulfil labor requirements, the U.S. and Mexican governments signed an agreement known as the Bracero Program. From 1942-1964, this program enabled millions of workers on short-term visas from Mexico to labor on American farms. This program provided farmers with the additional workers needed to maintain and expand their agricultural operations, while ensuring America’s food security and contributing to the consumption needs of America’s Allies and the caloric requirements of the post-war world. Today, U.S. agriculture has come to rely on migrant workers (legal and illegal) to plant and harvest American fields. It is estimated that 50-75% of farm laborers in the U.S. are illegal immigrants from Mexico and other South American countries. The U.S. is dependent on these workers, without whom the majority of crops would not be harvested, leading to agricultural waste and food insecurity. However, illegal immigrants labor under physically demanding and often dirty conditions with pay that is far below minimum wage. Despite their vital importance to the American economy and way of life, illegal immigrants have been vilified in the media, and if caught by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, deported back to their home countries.

With the closing of borders and the issuance of stay-at-home orders, migrant workers’ position in American society has shifted. Now deemed “essential workers” by the U.S. government, illegal migrant workers are given letters showing their “essential” status, which enables them to go out to work, while others stay home. Just as in the Second World War, the economic need in the pandemic has driven political policy towards foreign workers and society’s perception of them.

Post-World War II witnessed the surge in America’s agriculture, pushing companies to create huge farming complexes, which vertically integrated many of the agricultural processes under one roof for greater efficiency and higher profit margins. Meat processing plants became part of these huge complexes, churning out thousands of pounds of meat per day and employing thousands of people in close, confined quarters, carrying out difficult, and often dirty and dangerous work cutting and preparing meat for the American consumer. While meat processing plants have grown in size, speed and production levels, they have not changed significantly in terms of the labor force from the early twentieth century. Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, published in 1906, is a fictionalized account of the meat packing industry and immigrants who worked in it. Newly arrived in Chicago, immigrant families had few job opportunities available to them, so many were forced to work in meat processing plants under dangerous and often deadly circumstances, as depicted in Sinclair’s book. Today, roughly 40% of employees in meat packing plants across the U.S. are legal and illegal immigrants with few economic resources and little access to health care. Many need to work in order to survive and don’t have the luxury of staying at home during the pandemic, causing cases of the virus to increase in these plants. From March to April, 30 plants nationwide shut down to limit the spread of the virus among employees. But fuelled by consumer demand and profit losses, as well as President Trump’s executive order on April 28th to reopen plants as “essential” to America’s food security, these processing facilities recommenced operations. Companies such as Tyson Foods put in security measures such as the use of plastic dividers and masks on the production floor. But confined working conditions and communal areas have led to a spike in cases at plants. By the end of May, COVID-19 rates of infection had skyrocketed across the industry to more than 17,000 cases. Many states that are experiencing high levels of the virus such as North Carolina and Georgia also have a high percentage of meat processing plants, suggesting that these plants could be adding to the spread of the virus by remaining open. The current power structure of the food system and the prioritization of corporations over the welfare and working conditions of individuals, which is not unlike the inequalities witness in the same industry during the turn of the twentieth century, illustrates the social injustices that continue to plague the food system.

The rise of the agricultural complex in the post-war period was a boon to American consumers, who were increasingly on the go. Consumption patterns shifted to ready meals such as tv dinners and fast food, which have taken a toll on America’s health with high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by these diseases as a result of inequalities in access to health care, employment opportunities, income gap and unequal access to nutritious foods. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Non-Hispanic blacks have the highest age-adjusted prevalence of obesity with 49.6% and non-Hispanic whites have a lower level with 42.2%. Large food corporations specifically target fast food and snack food to minority groups to boost their bottom line, resulting in higher levels of food-related diseases among these populations. COVID-19 has a deleterious effect on individuals with pre-existing conditions such as obesity and diabetes. Individuals, who have these pre-existing conditions, are much more likely to catch the virus and to suffer its long-term effects or to die from it. According to the Washington Post, a recent Georgetown University report found that nearly 80% of COVID-19 related deaths in the District were African Americans. Part of this can be attributed to the racial inequalities embedded in the modern food system where a small number of large producers dominate, which has created unhealthy consumption patterns in minority groups, leading to diseases which weaken bodies and make them more susceptible to the ill-effects of the virus.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic is not an isolated moment in the life of the food system, but rather a point in the cycle of change. However, issues of social injustice and racial prejudice continue to reverberate throughout the system. It remains to be seen what long-term and lasting impact the world health crisis will have on the movement of food from farm to table and the inequalities associated it.